Charles James Lever.

That boy of Norcott's online

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" No, sir ; and they tell me them breed never does : but it's
only play, sir."

" I'll give you six months before you can call him fit to ride,

" My name ain't Spunner, sir, if the young gent as come
yesterday don't back him in six weeks' time."

" And is it for the boy Norcott intends him ?" asked Clere-
mont of Hotham.

" So he told me yesterday ; and though I warned him that
he hadn't another boy if that fellow should come to grief, he only
said, ' If he's got my blood in him, he'll keep his saddle ; and if
he hasn't, he had better make room for another.' "

"Ain't he a-going beautiful now?" cried George, as the
animal swung slowly along at a gentle trot, every step of which
was as measured as clockwork.

" You'll have to teach the youngster also, George," said
Hotham. " I'm sure he never backed a horse in his life."

" Nay, sir, he rode very pretty indeed when he was six years


old. I didn't put him on a Shelty, or one of the hard-mouthed
'uns, but a nice little lively French mare, that reared up the
moment he bore hard on her bit ; so that he learned to sit on
his beast without holdin' on by the bridle."

" He's a loutish boy," said Cleremont to the captain. " I'll
wager what you like they'll not make a horseman of him."

" Eccles says he's a confounded pedant," said the other ;
" that he wanted to cap Horace with him at breakfast."

" Poor Bob ! that wasn't exactly his line ; but he'd hold his
own in Balzac or Fred Soulie."

" Oh, now I see what Norcott was driving at when he said,
' I wanted the stuff to make a gentleman, and they've sent me
the germ of a school-usher.' I said, ' Send him to sea with me.
I shall be afloat in March, and I'll take him.' "

" Well, what answer did he make you ?"

" It wasn't a civil one," said the other, gruffly. " He
said, ' You misapprehend me, Hotham. A sea captain is
only a boatswain in epaulettes. I mean the boy to be a
gentleman.' "

" And you bore that?"

" Yes. Just as well as you bore his telling you at dinner on
Sunday last that a Legation secretary was a cross between an old
lady and a clerk in the Customs."

" A man who scatters impertinences broadcast is only known
for the merits of his cook or his cellar."

" Both of which are excellent."

" Shall I send him in, sir?" asked George, as he patted the
young horse and caressed him.

" Well, Eccles," cried Hotham, as the tutor lounged lazily


up, " what do you say to the mount they're going to put your
pupil on ?"

" I wish they'd wait a hit. I shall not he ready for orders
till next spring, and I'd rather they'd not hreak his neck hefore
February or March."

" Has Norcott promised you the presentation. Bob ?'*

" No. He can't make up his mind whether he'll give it to
me or to a Plymouth brother, or to that fellow that was taken up
at Salford for blasphemy, and who happens to be in full orders."

" With all his enmity to the Established Church, I think he
might be satisfied with you," said Cleremont.

" Very neat, and very polite, too," said Eccles ; "but that
this is the Palace of Truth I might feel nettled."

" Is it, by Jove ?" cried Hotham. " Then it must be in the
summer months, when the house is shut up. Who has got a
strong cigar? these Cubans of Norcott's have no flavour. It
must be close on luncheon-time."

" I can't join you, for I've to go into town, and get my young
bear trimmed, and his nails cut. 'Make him presentable,'"
Norcott said, "and I've had easier tasks to do."

So saying, Eccles moved off in one direction, while Hotham
and Cleremont strolled away in another ; and I was left to my
own reflections, which were not few.




I WAS made " presentable " in clue time, and on the fifth day
after my arrival made my appearance at the dinner-table. " Sit
there, sir," said my father, " opposite me." And I was not
sorry to perceive that an enormous vase with flowers ejBectually
screened me from his sight. The post of honour thus accorded
me was a sufficient intimation to my father's guests how he
intended me to be treated by them ; and as they were without
an exception all hangers-on and dependants, — men who dined
badly or not at all when uninvited to his table, — they •o'ere mar-
vellously quick in understanding that I was to be accepted as his
heir, and, after himself, the person of most consideration there.

Besides the three individuals I have already mentioned, our
party included two foreigners — Baron Steinmetz, an aide-de-
camp of the King, and an Italian duke, San Giovanni. The
duke sat on my father's right, the baron on mine. The con-
versation during dinner was in French, which I followed imper-
fectly, and was considerably relieved on discovering that the
German spoke French with difficulty, and blundered over tis
genders as hopelessly as I should have done had I attempted to
talk. " Ach Gott," muttered he to himself in German, " when


people were seeking for a common language, wli}' clitlu't they
take one that all humanity could pronounce ? "

" So meiue ich auch, Herr Baron," cried I ; " I quite agree
with you."

He turned towards me with a look of positive affection, on
seeing I knew German, and we hoth began to talk together at
once with freedom.

" "What's the boy saying ? " cried my father, as he caught
the sounds of some glib speech of mine. "Don't let him bore
you with his bad French, Steinmetz."

" He is charming me with his admirable German," said
the Baron. " I can't tell when I have met a more agreeable

This was of course a double flattery, for my German was
very bad, and my knowledge on any subject no better ; but the
fact did not diminish the delight the praise aJEforded me.

" Do you know German, Digby ?" asked my father.

" A little — a very little, sir."

" The fellow would say he knew Sanscrit if you asked
him," whispered Hotham to Eccles ; but my sharp ears over-
heard him.

" Come, that's better than I looked for," said my father.
" What do you say, Eccles ? Is there stuff there ? "

" Plenty, Sir Koger ; enough and to spare. I count on
Digby to do me great credit yet."

" What career do you mean your son to follow? " asked the
Italian, while he nodded to me over his wine-glass in most civil

" I'll not make a sailor of him, like that sea-wolf yonder ;


nor a diplomatist, like my silent friend in the corner. Neither
shall he he a soldier till British armies begin to do something
better than hunt out illicit stills and protect process-servers."

" A politician, perhaps ? "

" Certainly not, sir. There's no credit in belonging to a
Parliament brought down to the meridian of soap-boilers and
bankrupt bill-brokers."

" There's the Church, Sir Roger," chimed in Eccles.

" There's the Pope's Church, with some good prizes in the
wheel ; but your branch, Master Bob, is a small concern, and it
is trembling besides. No. I'll make him none of these. It is
in our vulgar passion for money-getting we throw our boys into
this or that career in life, and we narrow to the stupid formula
of some profession abilities that were meant for mankind. I
mean Digby to deal with the world ; and to fit him for the task,
he shall learn as much of human nature as I can aflbrd to
teach him."

" Ah, there's great truth in that, very great truth ; very
wise and very original, too," were the comments that ran round
the board.

Excited by his theme, and elated by his success, my father
went on : —

" If you want a boy to ride, you don't limit him to the quiet
hackney that neither pulls nor shies, neither bolts nor plunges ;
and so, if you wish your son to know his fellow-men, you don't
keep him in a charmed circle of deans and archdeacons, but you
throw him fearlessly into contact with old debauchees like

Hotham, or abandoned scamps of the style of Cleremont "

and here he had to wait till the laughter subsided to add, " and.


last of all, you take care to provide liiiii with a finisliing tutor
like Eccles."

" I knew your turn was coming, Bob," whispered Hotham ;
but still all laughed heartily, well satisfied to stand ridicule
themselves if others were only pilloried with them.

When dinner was over, we sat about a quarter of an hour,
not more, and then adjourned to coffee in a small room that
seemed half boudoir, half conservatory. As I loitered about,
having no one to speak to, I found myself at last in a little
shrubbery, through which a sort of labyrinth meandered. It
was a taste of the day revived from olden times, and amazed me
much by its novelty. While I was puzzling myself to find out
the path that led out of the entanglement, I heard a voice I
knew at once to be Hotham's saying, —

" Look at that boy of Norcott's : he's not satisfied with the
imbroglio within doors, but he must go out to mystify himself
with another."

'' I don't much fancy that young gentleman," said Clere-

" And I only half. Bob Eccles says we have all made a
precious mistake in advising Norcott to bring him back."

" Yet it was our only chance to prevent it. Had we opposed
the plan, he was sure to have determined on it. There's
nothing for it but your notion, Hotham ; let him send the brat
to sea with you."

" Yes, I think that would do it." And now they had walked
out of earshot, and I heard no more.

If I was not much reassured by these droppings, I was far
more moved by the way in which I came to hear them. Over


and over had my dear mother cautioned me against listening to
what was not meant for me : and here, simply hecause I found
myself the toi^ic, I could not resist the temptation to learn how
men would speak of me. I remembered well the illustration by
which my mother warned me as to the utter uselessness of the
sort of knowledge thus gained. She told me of a theft some visitor
had made at Abbotsford — the object stolen being a signet-ring
Lord Byron had given to Sir Walter. The man who stole this
could never display the treasure without avowing himself a thief.
He had therefore taken what from the very moment of the fraud
became valueless. He might gaze on it in secret with such
pleasure as his self-accusings would permit. He might hug
himself with the thought of possession ; but how could that
give pleasure, or how drown the everlasting shame the mere
sight of the object must revive ? So w^ould it be, my mother
said, with him who unlawfully possessed himself of certain
intelligence which he could not employ without being convicted
of the way he gained it. The lesson thus illustrated -had not
ceased to be remembered by me ; and though I tried all my
casuistry to prove that I listened without intention, almost
without being aware of it, I was shocked and gi-ieved to find how
soon I was forgetting the precepts she had laboured so hard to
impress upon me.

She had also said, " By the same rule which would compel
you to restore to its owner what you had become possessed of
wrongfully, you are bound to let him you have accidentally over-
heard know to what extent you are aware of his thoughts."

. " This much at least I can do," said I : "I can tell these
gentlemen that I heard a part of their conversation."


I walked about for nigh an hour revolving these things in my
head, and at last returned to the house. As I entered the
drawing-room I was struck by the silence. My father, Clere-
mont, and the two foreigners were playing whist at one end of
the room, Hotham and Eccles were seated at chess at another.
Not a word was uttered save some brief demand of the game, or
a murmured " check," by the chess-players. Taldng my place
noiselessly beside these latter, I watched the board eagerly, to try
and acquire the moves.

" Do you understand the game ? " whispered Hotham.

" No, sir," said I, in the same cautious tone.

" I'll show you the moves, when this party is over." And I
muttered my thanks for the courtesy.

" This is intolerable ! " cried out my father. " That con-
founded whispering is far more distracting than smj noise. I
have lost all count of my game. I say, Eccles, why is not that
boy in bed ? "

"I thought you said he might sup, Sir Roger."

" If I did it was because I thought he knew how to conduct
himself. Take him away at once."

And Eccles rose, and with more Idndness than I had expected
from him, said, " Come, Digby, I'll go too, for we have both to
be early risers to-morrow."

Thus ended my first day in public, and I have no need to say
what a strange conflict filled my head that night as I dropped ofi"
to sleep.




If I give one clay of my life, I give, with very nearly exactness,
the unbroken course of my existence. I rose very early — hours
ere the rest of the household was stirring — to work at my lessons,
which Mr. Eccles apportioned for me with a liberality that
showed he had the highest opinion of my abilities, or — as I
discovered later on to be the truth — a profound indifference
about them. Thus a hundred lines of Virgil, thirty of Xenophon,
three propositions of Euclid, with a sufl&cient amount of history,
geography, and logic, would be an ordinary day's work. It is
fair I should own that when the time of examination came I
found him usually imbibing seltzer and cura9oa, with a wet towel
round his head ; or, in his robuster moments, practising the
dumb-bells to develop his muscles. So that the interrogatories
were generally in this wise : —

" How goes it, Digby ? What of the Homer — eh ? "

" It's Xenophon, sir."

"To be sure it is. I was forgetting, as a man might who
had my headache. And, by the way, Digby, why will your
father give Burgundy at supper instead of Bordeaux ? Some


one must surely have told him accidentally it was a deadly
poison, for he adheres to it with desperate fidelity."

" I believe I know my Greek, sir," would I say, modestly, to
recall him to the theme.

" Of course you do ; you'd cut a sorry figure here this morn-
ing if you did not know it. No, sir : I'm not the man to enjoy
your father's confidence and take his money, and betray my
trust. His words to me w'ere, ' Make him a gentleman, Eccles.
I could find scores of fellows to cram him with Greek particles
and double equations, but I want the man who can turn out the
perfect article — the gentleman.' Come now, what relations sub-
sisted between Cyrus and Xenophon ? "

" Xenophon coached him, sir."

*' So he did. Just strike a light for me. My head is split-
ting for want of a cigar. You may have a cigarette, too. I
don't object. Virgil we'll keep till to-morrow. Virgil was a
mufi", after all. Virgil was a decentish sort of Martin Tupper,
Digby. He had no wit, no repartee, no smartness ; he prosed
about ploughs and shepherds, Hke a maudlin old squire ; or he
told a very shady sort of anecdote about Dido, which I always
doubted should be put into the hands of youth. Horace is free
too, a thought too free ; but he couldn't help it. Horace lived
the same kind of life we do here, a species of roast-partridge and
pretty woman sort of life ; but then he was the gentleman always.
If old Flaccus had lived now, he'd have been pretty much like
Bob Eccles, and putting in his divinity lectures perhaps. By
the way, I hope your father won't go and give away that small
rectory in Kent. ' We who live to preach, must preach to live.'
That isn't exactly the line, but it will do. Pulvis et umbra


sumus, Digby ; and, take what care we may of ourselves, we
roust go back, as the judges say, to the place from whence
we came. There now, you've had classical criticism, sound
morality, worldly wisdom, and the rest of it ; and, with your
permission, we'll pack up the books, and stand prorogued till —
let me see — Saturday next."

Of course I moved no amendment, and went my way

From that hour I was free to follow my own inclinations,
which usually took a horsey turn, and as the stable offered several
mounts, I very often rode six hours a day. Hotham was always
to be found in the pistol-gallery about four of an afternoon, and
I usually joined him there, and speedily became more than his

" Well, youngster," he would say, when beaten and irritable,
" I can beat j'our head off at billiards, anyhow."

But I was not long in robbing him of even this boast, and in
less than three months I could defy the best player in the house.
The fact was, I had in a remarkable degree that small talent for
games of every kind which is a sjjecialty with certain persons. I
could not only learn a game quickly, but almost always attain
considerable skill in it.

" So, sir," said my father to me one day at dinner — and
nothing was more rare than for him to address a word to me,
and I was startled as he did so — " So, sir, you are going to turn
out an Admirable Crichton on my hands, it seems. I hear of
nothing but your billiard-playing, your horsemanship, and your
cricketing, while Mr. Eccles tells me that your progress with
him is equally remarkable." He stopped, and seemed to expect


me to make some rejoinder ; but I could not utter a word, and
felt overwhelmed at the observation and notice his speech had
drawn upon me.

*' It's better I should tell you at once," resumed my father,
"that I dislike prodigies. I dislike because I distrust them.
The fellow who knows at fourteen what he might reasonably have
known at thirty is not unlikely to stop short at fifteen, and grow
no more. I don't wish to be personal, but I have heard it said
Cleremont was a very clever boy."

The impertinence of this speech, and the laughter it at once
excited, served to turn attention away from me ; but, through
the buzz and murmur around, I overheard Cleremont say to
Hotham, "I shall pull him up short one of these days, and
you'll see an end of all this."

" Now," continued my father, " if Eccles had told me that
the boy was a skilful hand at sherry-cobbler, or a rare judge of a
Cuban cigar, I'd have reposed more faith in the assurance than
when he spoke of his classics."

" He ain't bad at a gin-sling with bitters, that I must say,"
said Eccles, whose self-control, or good-humour, or mayhap
some less worthy trait, always carried him successfully over a

" So, sir," said my father, turning again on me, " the range
of your accomplishments is complete. You might be a tapster
or a jockey. "When the nobility of France came to ruin in the
Revolution the best blood of the kingdom became barbers and
dancing-masters : so that when some fine morning that gay
gentleman yonder will discover that he is a beggar, he'll have
no difficulty in finding a calling to suit his tastes, and square


with bis abilities. Wbat's Hotbam grumbling about ? Will any
one interpret bim for me ? "

" Hotbam is saying tbat tbis claret is corked," said tbe sea
captain, witb a boarse loud voice.

" Bottled at bome ! " said my fatber, " and, like your own
education, Hotbam, spoiled for a beggarly economy."

" I'm glad you've got it," muttered Cleremont, wbose eyes
glistened witb mabgnant spite. " I bave bad enougb of tbis ;
I'm for coffee," and be arose as be spoke.

" Has Cleremont left us ?" asked my fatber.
" Yes ; tbat last bottle bas finisbed bim. I told you
before, Nixon knows notbing about wine. I saw tbat bogs-
bead lying bung up for eigbt weeks before it was drawn off
for bottling."

" Wby didn't you speak to bim about it, tben ?"
" And be told tbat I'm not bis marter, eb ? You don't seem
to know, Norcott, tbat 3-ou've got a bouseful of tbe most insolent
servants in Cbristendom. Cleremont's wife wanted tbe cbest-
nuts yesterday in tbe pbaeton, and George refused ber : sbe
migbt take tbe cobs, or notbing."

" Quite true," cbimed in Eccles ; " and tbe fellow said, ' I'm
a-taking tbe young borses out in tbe break, and if tbe missis
wants to see tbe cbestnuts, sbe'd better come witb me.' "

" And as to a late breakfast now, it's quite impossible ;
tbey delay and delay till tbey run you into luncbeon," growled

" Tbey serve me my cbocolate pretty regularly," said my
fatber, negligently, and be arose and strolled out of tbe room.
As be went be slipped bis arm witbin mine, and said, in a balf-


whisper, " I suppose it will come to tins — I shall have to change
my friends or my household. Which would you advise ?"

" I'd say the friends, sir."

" So should I, but that they would not easily find another
place. There, go and see is the billiard-room lighted. I want
to see you play a game with Cleremont."

Cleremont was evidently sulking under the sarcasm passed
on him, and took up his cue to play with a bad grace.

" Who will have five francs on the party?" said my father.
" I'm going to back the boy."

"Make it pounds, Norcott," said Hotham.

"I'll give you six to five, in tens," said Cleremont to my
father. " Will you take it ? "

I was gromng white and red by turns all this time. I
was terrified at the thought that money was to be staked
on my play, and frightened by the mere presence of my father at
the table.

" The youngster is too nervous to play. Don't let him,
Norcott," said Hotham, with a kindness I had not given him
credit for.

" Give me the cue, Digby ; I'll take your place," said my
father ; and Cleremont and Hotham both drew nigh, and talked
to him in a low tone.

" Eight and the stroke then be it," said my father, " and the
bet in fifties." The others nodded, and Cleremont began the game.

I could not have believed I could have suffered the amount of
intense anxiety that game cost me. Had my life been on the
issue I do not think I could have gone through greater alterna-
tions of hope and fear than now succeeded in my heart. Cleremont


started with eight points odds, and made thirty-two off the balls
before my father began to play. He now took his place, and by
the first stroke displayed a perfect mastery of the game. There
was a sort of languid grace, an indolent elegance about all he did,
that when the stroke required vigour or power made me tremble
for the result ; but somehow he imparted the exact amount of
force needed, and the balls moved about here and there as though
obedient to some subtle instinct of which the cue gave a
mere sign. He scored forty-two points in a few minutes,
and then drawing himself up, said : " There's an eight-stroke
now on the table. I'll give any one three hundred Naps to two
that I do it."

None spoke. " Or, I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll take fifty
from each of you and draw the game ! " Another as complete
silence ensued. " Or, here's a third proposition, Give me fifty
between you, and I'll hand over the cue to the boy ; he shall
finish the game."

" Oh, no, sir ! I beg you — I entreat — " I began ; but
already, " Done," had been loudly uttered by both together, and
the bet was ratified.

"Don't be nervous, boy," said my father, handing me his
cue. " You see what's on the balls. You cannon and hold
the white, and land the red in the middle pocket. If you can't
do the brilliant thing, and finish the game with an eight-
stroke, do the safe one — the cannon or the hazard. But, above
all, don't lose your stroke, sir. Mind that, for I've a pot of
money on the game."

" I don't think you ought to counsel him, Norcott," said
Cleremont. " If he's a player, he's fit to devise his own game."


" Ob, hang it, no," broke in Hotbam ; " Norcott bas a perfect
right to tell him what's on the table."

" If you object seriously, sir," said my father proudly, " the
party is at an end."

" I put it to yourself," began Cleremont.

" You shall not appeal to me against myself, sir. You either
withdraw your objection, or you maintain it."

" Of course he withdraws it," said Hotbam, whose eyes
never wandered from my father's face.

Cleremont nodded a half-unwilling assent.

" You will do me the courtesy to speak, perhaps," said
my father ; and every word came from him with a tremulous

" Yes, yes, I agree. There was really nothing in my
remark," said Cleremont, whose self-control seemed taxed to its
last limit.

" There, go on, boy, and finish this stupid affair," said my
father ; and he turned to the chimney to light his cigar.

I leaned over the table, and a mist seemed to rise before me.
I saw volumes of cloud rolling swiftly across, and meteors, or

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Online LibraryCharles James LeverThat boy of Norcott's → online text (page 3 of 17)